Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Content and Contingencies: Considerations regarding Curriculum Development for Young Children with Autism

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Content and Contingencies: Considerations regarding Curriculum Development for Young Children with Autism

Article excerpt

Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for children with autism is a non-linear, multi-component endeavor concerned with complex instructional contingencies and curriculum content. It might be useful to think of EIBI in terms of three general elements: curriculum protocol, analysis, and implementation and program structuring. These elements are interdependent and when discussing the clinical field of EIBI all three elements must be considered. Curriculum content and instructional contingencies interact in complex ways as numerous skill domains are addressed in a systematic and incremental manner. In directing this process of cumulative hierarchical learning, a strong focus on maintaining intrinsic program coherence is imperative. The present paper discusses some important aspects of the intricacies of EIBI.


From a behavior analytic perspective autism is not viewed as a central deficit but rather the condition is conceptualized as a constellation of many individual deficits to be treated separately (Lovaas & Smith, 1989). This pragmatic stance is shaped by extensive research that shows that improvement in one domain does not necessarily facilitate improvement in another. For instance, acquisition of prepositions does not necessarily facilitate acquisition of pronouns (Lovaas & Smith, 1989). No aspect of skill development can be taken for granted and intervention must proceed in incremental steps addressing multiple skill domains simultaneously.

Continuous time analysis of typically developing children shows that language development proceeds in incremental steps with an abundance of structured and fine-tuned environmental support. Acquisition of any complex skill requires many levels of accomplishment and higher skill levels can be acquired effectively only after lower levels have been mastered (Moerk, 1992). As such, learning is cumulative and hierarchical (Staats, 1981, 1994). These facts are amplified dramatically with respect to young children with autism. Children with autism require considerable time, numerous levels of accomplishment, incremental steps and highly attuned environmental support (i.e., contingency arrangements) in order to acquire even basic skills. This poses significant conceptual and analytical challenges when designing effective intervention. Staats (1994) has pointed out that "applied behaviorists, acquainted only with the principles of reinforcement, are limited in their ability to analyze many problems of human behavior, thus shortchanging the value of the behavioral approach" (p. 105). The clinical field of early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) transcends the basic principles of behavior analysis (i.e., basic conceptual calculus and learning principles) and must strive to establish concepts and principles that are effective in dealing with tremendous behavioral complexity and development. Whereas learning is concerned with the formation of new response patterns and response functions, development is concerned with "the emergence of new kinds of behavioral organization as the outcome of transformational sequences from previous conditions" (Ribes, 1996, p. 42).


The skill building process is not a linear endeavor in which individual repertoires comprise isolated and unrelated units independently controlled by environmental variables. Rather, skill building is encompassed by a complex and dynamic system in which behavioral units and repertoires are related and interdependent. Complex behavior is not a matter of straight lines that can be adequately accounted for in terms of linear logic. Rather, there are "snags and snarls" and multiple "lines" of progression characterized by confluence, overlapping and convergence. Furthermore, there are complex hierarchies (e.g., category structure) and dynamic networks to consider. According to the concept of cumulative and hierarchical learning, one repertoire provides the basis for learning another repertoire, etc. …

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